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MINUSMA "Soldats francais a Tombouctou" / via flickr

Five strategic failures of the French intervention in Mali

Richard Reeve | 03 March 2015

The establishment of the pan-Sahel Opération Barkhane on 1 August 2014 marked a ‘mission accomplished’ for the French military in Mali and its officially concluded Opération Serval intervention. However, establishing a French and UN military presence across northern Mali has not proved to be the same as restoring a Malian state presence in all of these areas, nor of guaranteeing peace there.

More than half of the half-million civilians displaced from northern Mali by the 2012-13 conflict have not returned home yet. The Malian state has actually lost ground to the rebel armed groups with which it was supposed to conclude a peace agreement. The escalation of state collapse in Libya also suggests that the Sahel-Sahara region is no less a safe haven for jihadist groups than in 2012. While jihadist groups such as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were defeated within Mali in 2013, this article highlights five failings of the intervention logic that suggest this was a tactical rather than strategic defeat.

The first failure has been the diagnosis of the problem in Mali as an acute incidence of jihadist terrorism rather than a chronic or cyclical domestic political crisis. While French intervention scattered AQIM and the main jihadist elements from their safe havens in northern Mali, it did not resolve the prior armed conflict between the Malian state and secular Tuareg separatist groups, which regained control of Kidal district. At least one of these, the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), has become a more important French ally in counter-terrorism operations in this, the centre of AQIM’s Malian operations, than the Malian security forces. Tragically, until defeated decisively in its renewed offensive on Kidal in May 2014, the elected Malian government interpreted the French military spearhead and UN shield in its three northern regions as a reason not to pursue a peace process with the separatists.

The second shortcoming has been that the French were able to use superior conventional forces to repulse a conventional offensive and recapture territory but they have not so easily been able to hold that ground against the asymmetric and unconventional tactics of a dispersed terrorist adversary. Successive reports in 2014 by the UN Secretary-General on Mali have attested to deteriorating security conditions in the north as French forces have drawn down and jihadist groups and cells have reorganized. These groups contain both Malian and foreign militants from new combinations of factions created through the shaking of the Saharan kaleidoscope that Opération Serval entailed.  Al-Mourabitoune, for example, was created in 2013 from a dissident faction of AQIM and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).  It has a more transnational focus on uniting the Maghreb and West Africa and is probably the most active jihadist group in Mali and Niger. Counter-terrorism operations require very different military means as well as comprehensive non-military efforts to address the factors that mobilize militants. Lack of peace between Bamako and the northern armed groups has stymied such responses.

The third shortcoming was in attempting to destroy highly mobile transnational armed groups with a campaign limited to one country that has completely open borders. Thus, Opération Serval displaced the jihadist problem from Mali into neighbouring countries, especially Niger – where there was a series of attacks in mid-2013 by groups formerly operating from Mali – southern Libya, and northern Nigeria. Some AQIM splinter factions appear to have gained in strength and, like Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Libya’s Ansar al Shari’a, may be making common cause with the ascendant Islamic State. This is a lesson that France aims to address with the more integrated regional approach of Opération Barkhane and the dispersal of French military assets across the Sahel. But this is still a military-first approach and the visibility of foreign “crusader” or “neo-colonial” troops in the region is high and likely to propel a backlash.

The fourth strategic own goal is even more relevant to Opération Barkhane than to Serval. Rooted in a concept of ‘partnership’ with Sahel militaries, Barkhane is seemingly blind to the toxic nature of these partners. All five armies of the target states have overthrown or risen against their own governments in the last decade. Their record against the civilians that they nominally protect and serve in these countries is often far worse; they may be seen more as pariahs and predators than partners by the local population. Far from the ‘republican’ spirit of inherited French law, Sahelian security forces often reflect tribalism and presidential protection. The dominance of Chad’s Zaghawa and Mauritania’s Hassane warrior tribes are good examples. In Mali the acute issue is the marginal position of Tuareg and Arab northerners in the army and abuses perpetrated by the southern-dominated security forces.

The fifth and most important critique of French counter-terrorism programmes in the Sahel-Sahara must be in terms of governance outcomes. The pursuit of counter-terrorism operations and basing or logistics infrastructure across the Sahel-Sahara is dependent on maintaining relationships and status of forces agreements with national governments: the local partners of Serval and Barkhane. This has strengthened a number of non-democratic regimes since the perception of reliable partners in the “war on terrorism” seems to be strongly correlated to authoritarian regimes’ investment in their security forces. The Algerian Pouvoir, the quasi-military Mauritanian government and especially the Déby government in Chad are thus pillars of French (and, increasingly, US) counter-terrorism strategies for the Sahel-Sahara. In a situation strongly analogous to uncritical Cold War alliances, such dependence makes them largely immune from pressure to improve their repressive treatment of citizens and political opponents. Violent Islamism has been one outlet for the political and social pressures that similar authoritarian regimes and state-corruption have built up in Nigeria and across the Maghreb. 

Addressing these consequences of a flawed military intervention strategy in order to build more sustainable peace and security in Mali and the Sahel will not be easy or quick. A political solution to the domestic conflict in northern Mali is the key element that was stymied by the French military intervention, and for which the responsibility lies very much with the elected Malian government. Only from this, and a binding ceasefire and demobilization, can follow a more nuanced and sustainable stabilization strategy for the north with economic development to the fore. Security sector reform can be part of that, not least a role for the Tuareg in securing their home territory, but the ability of the state to provide justice and social services is likely to be at least as important in deterring future rebellion. This said, the resources that Mali can muster will be meagre and the renewed collapse of the Libyan state – the region’s weakest link – is likely to reinforce the regional security challenge that first swept Mali as the Gaddafi regime fell in late 2011.

Photo credit main picture: MINUSMA "Soldats francais a Tombouctou" / via flickr

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Richard Reeve

Richard Reeve is the Director of Oxford Research Group's (ORG) Sustainable Security Programme.

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